Continuing my annual tour of France's Rhône Valley, this time to taste the 2009 and 2008 lineups from barrel at the region's best and most exciting domaines, today I finished up my tour of Cornas (You can read up on four more Cornas domaines in Part 1 and Part 2 of my fifth day here) and headed to Crozes-Hermitage. And for an overall view of these vintages' characteristics, as well as links to my recent coverage of the region, check out Tasting 2008 and 2009 Rhône Wines.
As noted after my initial visit here, I think this is one of the single most exciting new domaines to come on the scene in the Northern Rhône since I began covering the region several years ago. Matthieu Barret makes electric wine, with vivid fruit, crackling acidity, yet still true to the taut, bracing minerality that defines Cornas. For background on this domaine you can reference my cellar notes from October 2007 and March 2009.
After experimenting more in his first few vintages, Barret seems to have settled in now. The domaine now totals 10 hectares of vines, all concentrated in the northern end of the appellation known as Coulet. There are an additional 3 hectares of vines in Côtes du Rhône as well. Grapes are destemmed and parcels fermented separately in stainless steel tanks, but without temperature control. The young vines are then moved to cement eggs; the old vines to demi-muids (large, 600-liter barrels). The various cuvées represent approximate blends of similar parcels and vine ages, but there are no hard and fast rules.
"I begin the blend in the vineyard," said the talkative and sometimes self-deprecating Barret. "And then I build from there. So they are really more 'ideas' in the end."
Barret noted that his fermentation took a little longer than usual in 2009, when most others reported quick ferments.
"The skins were drier following the drought so things went slowly in the tank. But the vintage wasn't as tough [in terms of tannins] as '05. We had better phenolic maturity in '09," he said.
There are now four cuvées produced here, in ascending order they are Brise Cailloux, Les Terasses du Serre, Billes Noires and Gore, "My bloody wine," said Barret, laughing. Yields have been absurdly low for the last two vintages, just 15 hectoliters per hectare, a level that Barret knows is neither healthy for the vineyards nor a sustainable economic model.
"I really want to get the vineyards stabilized at about 25 hl/ha," he said. "Right now they're too low and the wines can be a little difficult. At 25 you can still make the same wine, maybe better, because you have more juiciness to balance the minerality and the vineyard won't be as stressed."
Cornas remains the most rustic appellation in the Northern Rhône, with a small but growing cadre of serious vignerons.
To that end, Barret is adding organic compost to boost the vines' productivity.
Tasting the young vine parcel from one of the cement eggs, likely destined for the 2009 Cornas Brise Cailloux, I immediately see the sappy, vibrant violet and purple fruit profile that is the hallmark here. It's bracing, but not as dense as the top parcels. Nonetheless, Barret is contemplating not making the Brise Cailloux cuvée in '09, because of its power, and instead, "classifying up" to the other cuvées.
The 2009 Cornas Les Terasses du Serre is Barret's "classic"-style cuvée, sourcing fruit from the middle slopes of the appellation. From the Muzards parcel, the wine is very tight but quickly shows dark, sauvage notes as it airs in the glass. A demi-muid of juice from La Geynale is still working through its malo and shows a bit of reduction, but also opens to pure, vivid fruit with air. It's quite showy, ultimately, and coming from a warmer portion of the appellation, Barret said he just used a little to blend in, so as not to overwhelm the cuvée. The juice from the middle slopes of the Mazards and Patron parcels have been blended already, showing very sappy, intense kirsch fruit and amazing aromatic power.
Most of the parcels we try show some reduction, as Barret has yet to rack the '09 reds.
"I don't like to rack in the first year," he said. "If it gets reduced, it can be reversed. I'd rather have the wine protected more early on."
For the 2009 Cornas Billes Noires, a section from the Arlets parcel at the top of the hill is tight, but packed, with dense, brooding fruit backed by blazing minerality, the kind that Barret wants for the cuvée. Though all the cuvées here are exceptional in 2009, the Billes Noires is flirting with classic quality, as it shows the best combination of fruit and minerality, a feat that Barret said is especially difficult in warmer years like '09, which he feels is a tad too powerful for his style.
Matthieu Barret’s cellarhand was apparently very enthused with the prospects for the wine in this barrel.
"Years that are cooler, even with some rain, are really not a problem because Cornas is always warmer than elsewhere in the north, and it drains so well," he said. "The heat gives us extreme fruit, the fine granite soils give us the minerality and finesse, so two opposites combine to make something great. We just need to balance the power with the freshness."
The 2009 Cornas Gore is basically a single-parcel selection, using fruit from parcels that feature the crumbled, pebbly granite known locally as "gore." The wine shows violet, cassis and cherry confiture notes, with a gorgeously racy spine that won't quit. It should rival the Billes Noires cuvée for quality.
In 2008, Barret made the difficult decision to produce just one cuvée, the 2008 Cornas Brise Cailloux.
"2008 is a very acidic vintage, so I worked the wine more like a Burgundy than a Rhône," said Barret.
"The wine is an admirable effort, and among the best '08 Cornas I've tried so far, featuring brisk but balanced red currant and pomegranate fruit flavors that quickly open and expand in the glass.
A late release from the domaine will be the 2007 Cornas Gore, bottled in magnums. It's very intense, with a racy beam of currant, iron, lilac and white pepper notes that manages to maintain freshness and precision despite its depth. The long, pebbly feel on the finish is invigorating and the wine could potentially merit a classic rating when released.
"I adore 2007 as a vintage," said Barret, It's a serious vintage, but it's fresh and drinkable now too."
Alain Graillot, the guru of Crozes-Hermitage, has retired. That will probably be the most hated sentence in my blog for some time, as the elder Graillot has built a reputation for sturdy, classically made Crozes-Hermitage bottlings that age well. Graillot's minimalist white labels, with black lettering and red border have been the defining bottle for the appellation over the past 20 years.
"He's around a little. But it's ski season, so I haven't seen him in a while," said his son, Maxime Graillot, 33.
No worries though—Maxime is now taking over. He's vinified both the '08 and '09 vintages just as his father had, using stems during the vinification and no new oak for the élevage (or "raising," the time a wine spends between fermentation and bottling). You wouldn't notice a difference if I hadn't mentioned it.
Maxime also has his own operation, a négociant called Equis to which he sells his own domaine's production while purchasing additional fruit. For more background on both, reference my cellar notes from December 2005, November 2006 and November 2007.
Construction has also been finished on the new expanded cellar here, though the white line on the floor of the older cellar, which used to legally separate the two entities, remains for posterity's sake.
We start with the Graillot 2009 Crozes-Hermitage White, a blend of 80 percent Marsanne and 20 percent Roussanne that is fermented in tank and barrel and has its malolactic fermentation blocked.
"Acidity is always needed in the whites here," said Graillot.
At just 12.5 alcohol, the wine still comes off as rich and ripe in the mouth, the tank portion showing more citrus peel notes, the barrel portion showing the textbook melon and peach flavors. It will also be bottled under screw cap.
The 2009 Equis Crozes-Hermitage Equinoxe is Graillot's spring cuvée; a fresh, uncomplicated Syrah offering bright minerality and good black cherry fruit. It too is bottled under screw cap now. Stepping up to the 2009 Equis Crozes-Hermitage Domaine des Lises, sourced from Graillot's own vines, the wine combines four parcels—younger vines show dark mulberry and blackberry fruit with a toasty but fresh finish; the older vines show more currant and fig, with plum cake and licorice notes.
When Graillot started his Equis operation, he had 28,000 bottles, now he's at 40,000 with plans to hold fairly steady at that level; the A. Graillot operation totals 120,000 bottles and won't shift.
"Equis is sort of my lab, while the Graillot label is the cruise ship that will just keep on sailing," said Graillot. "But I also want to have fun. I've got 30 hectares, some new plantings, a wife, a child. I want to be able to party a little on the weekends, I don't want to do so much that I have to sacrifice everything to make it work."
The 2009 Equis St.-Joseph is very tangy and sappy in feel, with lilting floral aromas for balance, and like the Crozes from Domaine de Lises, shows outstanding potential. The 2009 Equis Cornas gets my nod for the best wine in the Equis portfolio though. It's destemmed three-quarters and sees a longer élevage (18 to 20 months). Sourced from the Chaillot, Sabarotte and La Cote parcels, it's very dark and winy, with lots of mulled currant and pastis noted and a dark, braised olive hint. The 2008 Equis Cornas is very expressive, with Pinot Noir-like notes of red cherry and spice, though not nearly as dense as the '09. The 2008 Equis Crozes-Hermitage Domaine de Lises offers very good, precise blackberry and black cherry fruit. The 2008 Equis St.-Joseph is tangy and herb-driven, with modest cherry fruit that stays a touch lean on the finish. The 2007 Equis Cornas is really packed though, with licorice, dark plum and cocoa notes and a long, grippy finish that is easily outstanding.
Switching to the Alain Graillot reds, the 2009 St.-Joseph offers winy kirsch and white pepper notes, with a pronounced iron note on the finish. It's grippy but approachable despite being so early in its élevage.
"Normally March is a tough time to taste," said Graillot. "The wines have just finished their malo, they've gotten their sulfites and they're getting their first contact with wood. But in '09 the wines are so big and they're showing well already."
A sample of the 2009 Crozes-Hermitage, fermented entirely with whole clusters, is tight and grippy, with loads of briar, olive and pepper and a long, deliciously chewy feel on the finish. There will likely be a La Guiraude bottling, but no selection has been made yet.
"My dad compares '09 to '90," said Graillot. "Me? I haven't been around that long," he said with a friendly smirk.
In 2008 however, there is no La Guiraude, yet the younger Graillot kept to his father's style and fermented the lighter vintage with all stems anyway. The 2008 Crozes-Hermitage is remarkably fresh and driven. It's taut, yes, but balanced, with bright red berry fruit and a lingering peppery note. The 2008 St.-Joseph is also snappy, with a red berry and floral profile and a slightly lean cherry pit-tinged finish, though it has better balance than the '08 Equis bottling. Both wines (but particularly the Crozes) are super efforts for the vintage.
"In 2008, we got 300 mm of rain from Sept. 7 through the 10th," said Graillot. "And that came after a cool, wet season. But then from Sept. 10 through Oct. 10 we didn't have a drop—the longest stretch of time without rain all year long, and it saved the vintage. But still, '09 is a 20-year wine; '08 we'll be happy with a five-year wine."
(Read my official reviews of Alain Graillot's bottled wines from previous vintages and Equis' bottled wines from previous vintages.)
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